Reprinted from the "Medications" issue of Visions Journal, 2007, 4 (2), p. 3
I never knew him, but my granduncle was institutionalized for ‘melancholia’ in the 1920s or 30s. His depression left him catatonic toward the end of his life and he never left that facility. When, 75 years later, I needed psychotropic medication as part of my treatment plan, I thought of him whenever the cycle of medication trial-and-error sapped all my mental and physical reserves. I was lucky, I reminded myself; I could have been shut away like he was, for what is now considered a very treatable condition. Along with medicine, other therapies, lifestyle changes, and self-care, recovery has been very real for me and for hundreds of thousands of people in this province. Like broadcaster, Rafe Mair, I, too, never say I’m ‘on drugs.’ I’m taking medicine. It’s how we talk about other conditions. Why do we have so many different rules when the medicine is for mental illness or addiction?
In planning this issue, I was surprised at how emotional this topic can be. And why shouldn’t it be? As many of the writers in this issue discuss so passionately, medications are often a double-edged sword. The right medications can help lift symptoms of mental illness or addiction so we can finally do all the other hard work needed for recovery. For many of the same people, however, there are lots of simultaneous and more challenging realities: disabling side effects and reactions, tapering and withdrawal, multiple meds and interactions, trial-and-error roller coasters, medications that don’t help, inappropriately medicating, affordability and access, fear, shame, daily restrictions and inconveniences of meds-taking, and/or possibility of dependence. As one doctor once told me, being on meds is like a hangover in reverse: you usually feel worse before you feel better.
Many people turn to other solutions. In fact, many submissions for this issue, which we didn’t publish, described pathways to alternative or non-medication-based treatments. Although these were out of scope for this edition, we hope to address some of these other treatment choices in future Visions.
In the end, I think you’ll find that the most enduring theme in this issue of Visions has little to do with medication itself or the biological model of mental illness. People and programs that are finding success are the ones that help people with mental illness or addictions feel empowered, engaged, informed, respected as experts in their own health. And as whole human beings. As always, we hope you find this issue relevant and insightful.
About the authorSarah is Visions Editor and Director of Public Education and Communications at the Canadian Mental Health Association’s BC Division. She also has personal experience with mental illness.